Q&A: Rebel spokesman Abdelbaset Abumzirig

Rebel spokesman from Misurata describes the situation in the besieged city, where heavy fighting continues.

    Abumzirig says Gaddafi's troops are treated well when captured by rebels [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]

    Benghazi, LIBYA -- When 41-year-old Misurata resident Abdelbaset Abumzirig called Al Jazeera Arabic during the first days of the uprising against longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, he became the voice of the city's rebels to much of the outside world.

    In the months since, Abumzirig has kept journalists informed about the fighting in Libya's third-largest city, which some have begun to call "Libya's Stalingrad". The government has shut down communications in the city: Residents can call out only through satellite phones or one of only perhaps 10 two-way satellite Internet connections left in the city, he said.

    Al Jazeera caught up with Abumzirig on Saturday night during a brief visit to Benghazi. He was due to return to his besieged hometown on Sunday.

    A lawyer by training, Abumzirig also wrote and directed anti-regime plays. He adapted an Armenian writer's novel into "The General of the Dead Army," which criticized Gaddafi's armed forces, and also wrote "The Night When Ben Ali Escaped,"a reference to the downfall of Tunisia's leader that called for a similar uprising in Libya.

    Abumzirig told Al Jazeera that rebels had made significant advances in Misurata in recent days, but he described a violent and bloody conflict on the ground. Around 10 families have reported cases of rape at the hands of Gaddafi's troops, and many more have seen their relatives abducted.

    Around 400 people have died, at least 2,000 have suffered injuries - many severe - and 1,000 have disappeared, Abumzirig said. The lightly armed rebel force defending the city numbers only 800 to 1,000 men at any time, though many more stand ready to take weapons from their fallen comrades, he said.

    Describe the situation in Misurata.

    Gaddafi forces, or brigades, are holding position at the outskirts of Misurata, and they managed to get in Tripoli street, which is about 7 kilometres long. And they positioned snipers over the buildings and tried to shoot at anybody who tried to get closer to that area.

    And moreover, there is heavy shooting by Grad missiles, rocket launchers, tanks - randomly at everywhere in Misurata, especially in the residential areas for the purpose of killing people.

    [The loyalist troops] tried to reach the area which is close to the Misurata harbour, but the rebels managed to stop them and prevent them from getting into that area again.

    What about food and water and other supplies?

    In terms of water, they managed to cut off water, but we managed to run the desalination plant close to the Misurata iron plant, so we could partially supply the city with water and even supply the far areas with this water by cars.

    They couldn't destroy the high-power [electricity] stations, a little remained, so we managed to run these stations so Misurata, some areas would hold lights for one day, by three. One day and three off. We use different generators for active areas like hospitals, like clinics.

    They disrupted all kinds of communication, we are communicating with the world with little stations, two-way Internet connections.

    What's happened to the women, children and families in Misurata?

    They evacuated families as far as they could away from Gaddafi forces, but they were not safe because of the shelling. So the other residents of the other areas where the families evacuated, they received them in their homes, so every single house has five families, and there was a lot of congestion.

    The guys, they evacuated the families, the children, the women, and they stayed at the city, making a fierce resistance as long as they receive ammunition and other weapons.

    Do you know of any cases of sexual violence or rape? Are people saying these have occurred?

    Some cases have happened. Some families talk about the raping, especially the Arab [non-Libyan] families, from Morocco and other countries, especially in Benghazi Street. Even Libyan families have been subjected to rape. Some have spoken, some others, you know the old traditions, they didn't speak, but it's not a shame. But it was limited actually. Even one Moroccan family talked to the media.

    The Gaddafi forces took control of Benghazi Street, parallel to Tripoli Street, before we managed to push them out. They took it when they first entered Misurata, down town, on March 6. We pushed them out the same day, and then they entered again on March 19, when they took control of the city from the side. We pushed them out from Benghazi Street, but they are still in Tripoli Street.

    They have been ordered to rape, because this means they are kind of insulting Misurata itself. Some spoke, but not to the media, some talked to the human-rights organisations.

    Are you aware of any other potential crimes committed by Gaddafi forces in the city. We've heard about the cluster bombs, but what else?

    Yes, there's severe punishment for the kidnapped, we cannot even count the number, because in some families they took 11, 13 individuals, they shot them. Moreover they use children, engage them in war in Misurata. Some of them were born in 1996. We have a captive who is 17. There is a Mauritanian mercenary who is 14 years old. He is still in Misurata, we let him free, but he is living with the families. Al Jazeera Arabic interviewed him.

    They were ordinary workers, labourers in Tripoli. [Gaddafi] captured them and put them into the war. Mauritanians and others.

    How are the rebels being treated when they are captured by Gaddafi's forces?

    I can't describe it. They torture everybody, even those who were kidnapped in the streets or at their homes. They kidnapped children. They are shot, there is psychological torture, some can't even speak [when we recover them], they shoot at their legs. They are beating them, killing their friends before their eyes. Some have escaped and told us this.

    Sometimes now they are using captives as human shields. We found some dead bodies handcuffed to the wheel inside tanks.

    What's your opinion on the use of foreign soldiers for a humanitarian mission in Misurata?

    This is not acceptable in the street, we would not like the deployment of foreign troops. The victory will be hailed for the soldiers, and the regime itself will use it as an example of the colonisation of Libya. The victory will be considered for the soldiers, not by us.

    The situation is now in favour of Misurata, especially with the NATO air strikes. The situation is improving in Misurata, rebels are starting to get control of the city. The number of casualties are actually due to shelling from far away, that means even if the foreign soldiers deployed on the ground, it wouldn't make a change, because the shelling is far from Misurata.

    Gaddafi is crazy, he might attack the foreign troops.

    What's your reaction to the latest news that Gaddafi's troops are supposedly withdrawing from the city?

    He is absolutely defeated and pushed back and he cannot get in Misurata again, and all his attempts to control Misurata will fail. What concerns us is the use of Grad missiles against us. Because we are worrying that once he is defeated, he will start using more intensive shelling.

    The other surrounding cities will rise up, and together we will pave the way to Tripoli.

    How are Gaddafi troops treated when they're captured?

    We treat them well, especially the Libyans, but the mercenaries, we find them dead. What we capture is only Libyans. Maybe they use some tactic to kill [the mercenaries]. I saw 15 prisoners with my own eyes, one of them is the Mauritanian child. In the other areas, there are many, but less than 100. Because they tell us, everyone who tries to surrender, [Gaddafi forces] kill them.

    From the beginning, we caught Malians with Libyan IDs. I saw seven guys, they didn't even speak Arabic, but the IDs are Libyan.

    Anyone who surrenders themselves, we will treat well. In the video Al Jazeera showed of rebels clearing the school, they shouted "surrender yourself, you're safe." They killed about 21 soldiers, among them 15 are mercenaries, Africans.

    Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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